This might surprise you, but I wasn’t always such a mild, soft-spoken guy. Before my conversion to St. Francis of Assisi’s gospel of peace, you might have called me… contentious. Provoked, I acted rather “prickly”—and I mean that as an adverb. Growing up bookish in a blue collar ‘hood full of guys named Vito who thought my pointy head could be best used as a hood ornament on a Trans-Am, I learned the fine art of verbal repartee, and the means to deeply humiliate an iron-pumping cafone in front of his friends—and then at the end of the school day to escape from the building intact and unobserved. No matter how many of his pals from the basketball team were pounding their fists in front of what they thought were all the exits. It got me ready for life as a journalist.
Likewise, the family dynamics that prevailed in the Zmirak home made of our cramped, rent-controlled apartment an elite dojo in the emotional martial arts—although our school of powerplay was less like the elegant Aikido than the inelegant but highly effective technique of personal combat called krav Maga. Developed by the Israeli Defense Force, the point of krav Maga, as an instructor once explained to me, is not so much “Oriental philosophy or learning how to think like a lotus or that kind of sh-t,” but rather to “make the fershtinker who attacked you cough up his b-lls up out of his mouth!” (These remarks were addressed to the Catholic men’s retreat I was attending, but that’s another story.)
Serving as the only conservative at Yale crazy enough to write regular pieces on gay rights, abortion, and feminism helped sharpen my canines and thicken my hide. The perks of my position—constant insults, profane graffiti using my name, Amish-style shunning, and the occasional punch in the face—schooled me in the art of the vicious comeback, the anonymous parody, and the pre-emptive conversational tirade. These experiences, in synergy with ancient grudge-nursing Gaelic and Croat chromosomes, helped me formulate my personal doctrine of strategic defense. As a budding Cold War theorist, I called it “Massive, Disproportionate Retaliation” (MDR).
After prayerful reflection, I’d concluded that the Gospel admonition “Turn the other cheek” was one of many Biblical sayings whose meaning was so opaque that laymen could not responsibly presume to interpret it. (What was I, a Lutheran?) Like the Book of Revelation, it was one of those impenetrable allegories best left to the professionals. And how had theologians interpreted it in the past? Against the vulgar, literalist reading of this text, I cited the Church’s doctrine of Just War, the multiple pontiffs and canonized saints (see Bernard of Clairvaux) who’d supported the Crusades, the military expeditions of Renaissance popes—and the example of Jesus Himself cleansing the temple. (How many times I dreamed of imitating Christ by charging into the “peace and justice” chapel run for Catholics on campus, as I sat in my dorm room, patiently knotting cords….)
Reflecting on the almost univocal support of American Catholics for the bombing of Hiroshima, and the role our nuclear doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction played in containing atheistic Communism, I personalized the political. I explained my strategic doctrine to a friend: “If somebody screws with you, and you let him get away with it, what lesson are you teaching him?”
My friend just stared at me. A well-meaning but utterly harmless philosopher in training, he’d learned meekness the old fashioned way—from a deeply manipulative mother.
“The lesson that crime really pays. You’re encouraging him to go forth unto others and do likewise. Is that fair to his next victim? And if you don’t retaliate, aren’t you tempting the wrongdoer to do it again? Which means you’re serving as a near occasion of sin….”
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that on my conscience.” QED.
This theory was not some new synthesis, but a catechetical summary of the tacit creed which had kept me going for 20 years: Let no slight go unanswered, no insult go unreturned. While I no longer hold to this axiom, over the decades my practice of MDR did produce some edifying results:
* My agoraphobic, overprotective mother objected to my taking the slightest physical risk of any kind—and kept such a network of Bingo buddies that if I took my bike out into the street, used profane language, or hung out with any of the “bad” (i.e. normal) boys, word would get back to her and I’d get a beating. We came to the point where she would stand downstairs from our third-floor apartment to smoke a pack or two, and object if she saw me look out the window—in case, you know, I fell. One day, at age 13, I hit my personal limit. I spied her downstairs and knew what had to be done. I spent a solid hour forming a mannequin out of my clothes and rolled up newspaper, stuck the Styrofoam head from one of her wigs onto the thing, and leaned it out the window, shouting: “Mom! M-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-w-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m!” The dummy fell right beside her, and the head popped off. I’d never seen someone in her 50s jump quite so high.
* An acquaintance at Yale who liked to pontificate about Heidegger, and smirk condescendingly at everything I said—and who bore a disturbing resemblance to a sea tortoise—had embarassed me, in order to make points with a girl he was pestering. (She wanted nothing to do with him, not that he’d listen.) A few days later, on April 1, pink fliers reading “Coming Out on the Right,” with his name in 72-point type appeared on every campus bulletin board—inviting students to his dorm room that night for a talk… on his experience as a secret gay conservative. I don’t know how many people showed up, but for weeks thereafter Yalies were patting him on the back and congratulating him for his courage. His best friend came rushing up to him with a flier demanding, “Why didn’t you tell me?” His response: “It isn’t true…. It’s Zmirak!” (This one was particularly disproportionate, and I did apologize.)
* A stuffy, insufferable pipe-smoking Hegelian invited me out to lunch—and I wondered why, since our mutual dislike was fairly open. I soon discovered he wanted someone on whom to try out his favorite anti-Catholic zingers. He recited one in particular with such relish that I could tell he’d been waiting for years to use it: “What I don’t understand about you Catholics is how you can worship a God who tells you ‘EAT ME.’” I smiled, and offered the mild answer which turneth aside wrath: “What I don’t get is how you Jews can worship a God who forbids lobster to the only folks who can afford it.” Turning purple, he actually stamped his little Rumpelstiltskin foot and shrieked: “That’s anti-Semitic!”
* At a cocktail party organized for Manhattan Republicans—hey, the drinks were free, and working from home I rarely got to leave the house without at least a beagle—I was trapped between NR’s Ramesh Ponnuru and libertarian columnist Wally Olsen. Now, I have no interest in other men’s personal lives, but Wally and I were alums of the same conservative group at Yale, and he made a special point every time I ran into him of reminding me about his sexuality, and dropping some snarky comment about the Church. Usually I’d just shrug it off (Did he expect me to run into the Ladies’ room and cry?) but this occasion was special. Ramesh was waving his hands and gibbering like a speed freak, describing his spiritual search: “I’ve-I’ve-I’ve fl-flirted with be-becoming a Baptist, and I’ve fl-flirted with becoming a Catholic, but I just can’t m-make up my mind!” Wally leaned back and drawled: “Well sweetie, you just make sure it stays a flirtation. You don’t go all the way with any of those nasty old religions.” Ramesh laughed appreciatively, and I guess this was my cue to break down in tears. Instead, I offered some solid advice: “Actually, Ramesh, I think you should have anonymous encounters with hundreds of strange religions in public restrooms.”
* In grad school, I knew in passing two very unusual people. A savagely anti-papist Baptist from New Orleans who weighed about 80 lbs, lived in terror of black people, liked to make vicious prank calls, and was apparently the only person in Baton Rouge (apart from his fiancée) who didn’t know that he was gay. And the 350 lb. woman with a high, squeaky voice who lived as his roommate. He’d nearly been expelled from graduate school for making obscene calls to the Chancellor of LSU, so he moved on to “safer” targets. Namely, me. Sending out his expansive companion as a spy, he’d find out which English department gatherings I was attending, and she’d summon me to the phone. When I answered, he’d whisper obscene erotic suggestions until I hung up. This went on for six long months, until on April 1 this gent and his giant came prancing up to me: “Remember all those sexy phone calls?” he demanded, “That was me! April fools!” “Tee-hee-hee!” she added. That very night I worked with a friend who’d attended a largely black high school, and was good at faking accents. My colleague received a series of increasingly drunken, threatening phone calls from the outraged husband of “Fallopia,” who’d vanished from the family home and left behind only their phone number. Oh yes, and their address. And yes, he was coming over, and that “bitch better be outside waiting for me or I’m coming in for you. Cracker mother——er!” It ended with a phone call from Fallopia’s aged father, warning that his son-in-law was headed for their place with a loaded .45, and their exact apartment number. By the time my friend and I arrived, the apartment complex was buzzing with activity: Skinny physics grad students from Bangalore walked in procession as the neighborhood watch, and three cop cars were parked outside with flashing lights. We waltzed right past them, and up to the relevant door—which we banged on, as my friend screamed “Fallopia! I can hear you in there! Come on out or I’m gonna shoot the lock off this door!” I later heard that these merry pranksters hid for seven hours with the lights out under a mattress.
From these and many, many other attempts to morally educate my neighbor, I’ve drawn life-lessons myself. I learned about the French expression “l’esprit d’escalier” (the “wit of the stairs) for the witty comeback to a humiliating quip that comes to you on the stairs, after you’ve slunk out of a party. I’ve always had the opposite problem, which a Francophone friend helpfully terms “La finesse d’escalier” (tact of the stairs), for the bland and harmless remark you could have made—instead of an enemy for life.
And I learned from a spiritual director (the guy who’d invited the krav Maga instructor) that the best way to deal with anger is to liberate yourself from it. To break its hold over you by invoking a Higher Power. Or as he liked to put it, “Pray for the a—hole. It won’t make him less of an a—hole, not necessarily. But it might make you less of one.” With God, all things are possible.